Float like a butterfly: Kendrick changes the game

“To Pimp a Butterfly,” released March 16, follows Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” Billed as “a Short Film by Kendrick Lamar” on the cover, “good kid” made use of eerie spoken-word vignettes to tell the tragic—and often violent—story of the musician’s adolescence in Compton. However, “Butterfly” is something of a departure for Lamar.

Where “good kid” dealt in West Coast G-funk and trap-influenced beats, the new album is a fierce bricolage of soul, jazz and hymnals, thanks in no small part to the production of collaborators ranging from Flying Lotus and Thundercat to George Clinton and Robert Glasper.

But despite the varied influences, “Butterfly” is by no means easy listening. On centerpiece “u,” Lamar howls “Loving you is complicated!” until the backing track disintegrates, fluttering from left to right as if it were being played through a broken AUX cord. When the beat returns, Kendrick is slurring about depression and self-loathing over the din of clinking bottles.

At times, it’s a visceral listen—harrowing, even. But when taken as a whole, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is Kendrick’s best work yet: fierce, thought-provoking, dark and powerful.

Over the course of the album’s 16 tracks, Kendrick wrestles with a variety of themes: consumerism (“Wesley’s Theory”), poverty (“Institutionalized”), spirituality (“How Much a Dollar Cost”) and record-industry exploitation (“For Sale?”), just to name a few.

But from the very first sample on the record (which can’t be printed here for a variety of reasons), it’s clear that “To Pimp a Butterfly” is above all an album about race and everything it entails—from pan-Africanism to respectability politics.

Yet, it’s the album’s final track, “Mortal Man,” that might just canonize the album for the history books. Lamar speaks of Nelson Mandela and mulls over a breezy chord progression: “Can you be immortalized without your life being expired? / Even though you share the same blood, is it worth the time?”

The backing track fades away, but Kendrick keeps talking, tying together the skits scattered throughout the album. And then, at the album’s zenith, he’s talking with his martyred idol, Tupac Shakur, explaining the album’s central conceit: “The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar. But having a harsh outlook on life, the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak and figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits. Already surrounded by this mad city, the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalized him…He can no longer see past his own thoughts. He’s trapped.”

Lamar’s an iconoclastic figure, and almost everything post-”good kid” has proven controversial—from the politics to the production. But at the end of the day, he’s the sort of artist that merits unabashed superlatives. In this reviewer’s opinion, with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick has secured a place as one of the single most important voices in contemporary American music.
-Christopher Good